Rabbi Shalhevet’s sermon on Martin Luther King Jr.

Sermon from January 13, 2017

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked the question, “Who is a Jew?” and he answered his question with, “A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.” While we Jews by no means have the monopoly on moral integrity, caring about the rights of others should be a defining factor in what makes us Jewish.

We have a bimlkblical obligation to stand up for the rights of the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Those people were not chosen randomly in the Torah. They were the most marginalized. They were the ones with the least voice. We help those with most untapped potential in making the world a better place. Today our list can include, sadly, so many more. Today we find racism, hatred, and bigotry spreading like a disease in our country. Racism runs so deep in America that young African American men fear for their lives at routine traffic stops. Muslim women are attacked because of a head scarf. Transgender people must make life or death decisions about using a restroom. And we Jews, are not without our own fears. Swastikas are showing up our own Long Island Towns. Neo-Nazis are planning Marches through the streets in America.

So what are we to do about this? What does our moral, Jewish obligation tell us to do? It tells us to remember the words of our scriptures. It tells us to look at others who have stood up in the face of bigotry and hatred and have made significant changes to our world.

This weekend we celebrate the life and legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was but one voice. One voice that spurred a movement. He knew that the road to equality, acceptance, and love would not be paved in a day, nor, possibly in one lifetime. But he, a man of great spirituality and morality, never gave up hope.

I agree with those who say that love cannot be demanded. But education can. Dr King said, “some say morals can’t be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. And when you begin to change the habits of people pretty soon you will see attitudinal changes and even hearts may eventually change in the process.”

Dr. King believed with full faith in the idea and ideals of hope and love. And I do too. I believe that we can carry on Dr. King’s legacy and make the world a better place. It is the moral thing to do. It is the ethical thing to do. It is the Jewish thing to do.

So how do we do it?

First, we must recognize the danger.  We cannot allow ourselves to be blind to the needs of others. Not just individuals, but groups – and not just groups, but individuals. When we see the rights of others trampled, we must not ignore it. When we see individuals under attack, we must not stand idly by. The book of Proverbs states, “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and needy.” The poor and needy still exist  in so many forms and we must recognize that they are in danger!

Second, we must sound the warning. If we know there is danger and we say nothing to stop it, we are as responsible as the perpetrators. We must call our legislators, call to them and on them to make the necessary changes to help all Americans and those, like our ancestors, who wish to become Americans, the ability to find freedom. We must stand up for the woman who is bullied in the parking lot for wearing a hijab. We must call the police when we see the defacement of religious institutions or the homes.

And third, we must educate ourselves and spread love. We cannot make change unless we LIVE change. We cannot allow our own self-imposed barriers keep us from affecting the kind of change that Reverend King envisioned. The book of Deuteronomy teaches “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue” These are the watchwords of the social justice arm of the Reform movement. We must live up to them as Jews. We must spread love instead of hate. Loving your friend is easy. Loving the stranger is more important. Showing love to your enemy is vital for peace.

So we must recognize the danger. Warn each other of it, and spread love. Then our world can begin to change. I will end with the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr himself with a call to action.

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black  and white , Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”


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